Former Pittsburgh Steeler and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner ran all the right plays against his opponent — mesothelioma.
In the end, none of them were enough to let the two-time college football All-American score any touchdowns against the ruthless asbestos cancer.
Lattner lost to mesothelioma, which refused to be tackled, blocked or benched despite the Notre Dame great doing his best to win one for the Gipper.
Lattner was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in September 2014. He passed away in February 2016 at 83.
Lattner left behind a wife to whom he had been married for nearly 60 years. Also surviving him were his eight children and 25 grandchildren.
Mesothelioma Patient Set Football Record
Lattner was living in Chicago at the time of his death. He was born there and spent most of his life in the Windy City.
The times he was absent from Chicago can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The first time he left town was when he attended Notre Dame University in Indiana.
The second time was when he was drafted by the Steelers in 1954. The third time was when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at the end of his first — and only — season with the Steelers.
The final time Lattner moved from Chicago before returning for good was when he spent two years as the running backs coach at the University of Denver.
Even though Lattner had a very short career in professional football, he was one of the all-time gridiron greats.
He showed his athletic prowess early in life. Later, as a teenager, he led Chicago’s Fenwick High School to victory in two Prep Bowls.
However, it was at Notre Dame that his star-power fully emerged. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, played both offense and defense (he was a running back, a safety and a kick returner).
During his three-year career on the Notre Dame squad, Lattner set a record with 3,095 all-purpose yards. That record stood unbroken for a quarter century. His senior-year statistics included nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Mesothelioma Victim Won Heisman Trophy and Maxwell Award
These and other stellar achievements earned for Lattner the Heisman Trophy in 1953. They also twice earned him a Maxwell Award.
The Maxwell is annually presented to the one college football player deemed by head coaches and sports journalists to be the best that year in the entire U.S.
They started giving out Maxwell Awards in 1937. Since then only one other player besides Lattner has won it twice. That would be University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow who went on to play for the Denver Broncos and New York Jets.
Lattner’s accomplishments also brought him recognition as an All-American, just like earlier Notre Dame player George “The Gipper” Gipp. The Gipper was immortalized by then-actor and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1940 film classic “Knute Rockne, All American.”
All of this glory convinced the Pittsburgh Steelers to make Lattner a first-round draft pick for their team in 1954.
Lattner rewarded the Steelers for their faith in him by turning in a solid first season performance. That performance consisted of 542 yards run, seven touchdowns, 69 carries and 25 catches.
Sadly, Lattner never played for the Steelers after that. He had joined the Air Force and blew out his knee in an exhibition game for the military.
That injury put an end to his ability to play professionally. However, the recognition didn’t stop there. In 1979, Lattner was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Mesothelioma Fight Ended Heroically
With his football career behind him, Lattner went on to operate a pair of restaurants in Chicago. Later, he went to work as an executive of a Chicago company that printed graphics.
Still, he remained a hero. Especially to the 25 people he helped rescue in 1964 from a burning building just down the street from one of his restaurants. Ironically, his own place burned down four years later.
Then came the mesothelioma diagnosis not quite two years ago. Lattner developed mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos he encountered while working summer jobs during his years at Notre Dame and while serving in the Air Force.
A hero to the end, Lattner devoted his remaining days in part to pressing lawmakers in Washington to reject the FACT Act.
FACT is legislation that proposes to run pass interference for asbestos companies so that asbestos victims have a harder time obtaining compensation from asbestos bankruptcy trusts.
Johnny Lattner will be missed. However, his determination to win against mesothelioma will inspire many people far into the future.